If you believe EA Sports, currently hard at work on the latest installment in the company's landmark Madden NFL series, passing is king. As one of the producers for Madden NFL 2006 recently told us, Madden players choose pass plays roughly 70 percent of the time when playing the game. While that percentage seems low to us (especially for games played online), the fact remains that when it comes to putting points on the board, the pass is key to the game plan. In the real world, the 2004 NFL season saw passing at the forefront as well, with Peyton Manning breaking Dan Marino's long-standing single-season touchdown passing record, and field generals like Daunte Culpepper and Drew Brees lighting up the stats boards with their impressive arms.
In light of all this, EA Sports is finally taking a look at an aspect of the Madden series that hasn't seen a significant upgrade in the past decade: the passing game. And why not? After all, Madden NFL 2004 put a premium on defense with controls such as the defensive hit stick, so it's about time the developers took a look at the offensive game. The question isn't necessarily why, then, but rather how can the developers improve upon a passing mechanic that already works fairly well? The two-part answer comes in the form of what EA is referring to as vision and precision mechanics.
For years now, Madden quarterbacks have been assigned both awareness and accuracy ratings, used to determine the success of a QB on the field. And while accuracy is fairly easy to gauge--did the pass go to the intended spot or not?--the awareness rating has been vague both in design and implementation. How does a QB's awareness translate directly to his performance on the field? In Madden NFL 2006, the developers hope to change this by directly tying a quarterback's awareness rating to how he views the field through the QB vision system.
Essentially, vision manifests itself as a flashlight-beam-like cone on the field, which represents the field of vision of the quarterback you control. The illuminated cone will shift to the left or right as you check your receiver progressions, and you'll watch as your receivers run into (and out of) your field of vision. Obviously, nailing throws within your cone of vision will dramatically increase your chances of completing a pass, while tossing balls outside the cone will result in errant balls more often than not. In addition, throwing within your field of vision is the only way to place advanced touch on the ball using the game's newly revised placement mechanics (more on that in a bit).
Once you snap the ball, your quarterback immediately keys in on his primary receiver, which is assigned when choosing a play and can be changed before the snap by pressing the L2 or R2 button and the icon of the receiver you wish to make the primary receiver. The L2 button hides your primary receiver choice and is ideal for two-person games where you don't want to give anything away. You also have the option of setting your default vision to the center of the field by pressing the L2 and X buttons before the snap. If you wish to throw to a receiver other than the primary one, you'll still be able to do so by pressing the assigned receiver button, but your accuracy numbers will best be served by throwing within your field of vision.
While in the pocket, you have two options for checking your receiver progressions. First, you can scan the field by pressing left or right on the right analog stick, and your cone of vision will swing left or right accordingly. If you don't wish to sweep the field manually, you can look at a secondary receiver directly by holding the R2 button and pressing the assigned receiver button at the same time. Your quarterback's vision will swing to the appropriate side of the field and lock on to the assigned receiver for as long as you wish. Skilled players will make good use of this feature by holding down the R2 button and locking in on a target, and then, at the last moment, quickly switching to another receiver by keeping R2 pressed and choosing another icon, then heaving the ball. If the pocket breaks down and you need to make a run for it, your cone of vision will slightly shrink, simulating the difficulty of throwing on the run under heavy pressure.
All QBs Aren't Created Equal
Just as all quarterbacks are not created equal, QBs in Madden NFL 2006 who boast high awareness ratings, such as the aforementioned Peyton Manning, will enjoy huge cones of vision that cover nearly the entire field. Guys whose awareness rating falls somewhere beneath their shoe size will be looking at cones that are dramatically limited in size, forcing you to be much pickier about when and where you let go of the ball. If you play as Jeff Blake or Jake Plummer, you'll be dealing with a dramatically shrunken field of vision. You've often heard of a quarterback suffering from "tunnel vision;" now you'll be able to see it in action in Madden 2006.
While there's still work to be done on QB vision, the amount of forethought and detail we noticed in the game mechanic is already impressive. On a play action pass, for instance, you won't see the vision cone appear until the faked handoff to the running back is complete. Additionally, at the higher levels of difficulty in the game, the icons for your receivers will temporarily disappear after the receivers have finished their routes and are merely attempting to "get open." Icons will then appear only in your field of vision, and you'll be forced to manually swing your vision across the field using the right analog stick.
As much of a boon as this is for offensively minded Madden players, the QB vision has an interesting side effect on the defensive side of the ball as well. We've all seen NFL broadcasts where the booth analysts say a pass was intercepted because the defensive back was watching the quarterback's eyes the entire time. With QB vision, when you're playing on the defensive side of the ball, you'll have a bird's-eye view of directly where your opponent quarterback is looking.
If you're facing a quarterback who has limited vision, you'll be able to tell exactly where he is looking, and you can even watch as he tracks a receiver across the field. If he tends to go with his primary receiver too much or telegraphs his passes by staring to one side of the field, you can lock down a safety on him and hope to pick off a pass or two. In fact, thanks to the feature's inherent cat-and-mouse characteristics, we may see more gamers controlling the free safety than ever before, looking to spy a quarterback's vision and snag an INT or two. Therefore, guys like Manning and Tom Brady are at a real advantage here, as their huge cones of vision mean that the entire field is open to them. Furthermore, these wide-angle views of the field mean you never know exactly what receiver the QB is keying in on during a pass play. While online footballers loved to use Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick for their legs last year, we expect to see lots of players choosing the Colts and Patriots when playing Madden 2006 to take advantage of each team's quarterbacks. Finally, it should be noted that, as of this writing, the QB vision feature defaults to "on" in Madden 2006, but gamers may have the ability to turn off this feature if they wish. If it ends up playing as it was promised, Madden 2006's QB vision looks to add an entirely new layer of complexity to the offensive and defensive matchup found in the real NFL.
Whereas QB vision essentially kills the "look left, throw right" miracle tosses that used to work in previous versions of Madden and places an emphasis on the awareness portion of the QB ratings ratio, the game's precision placement mechanic gives you more control over the accuracy aspect. Using the placement mechanic, you have much more control over where the ball lands when it reaches the receiver. Pressing up on the left analog stick (along with the button for the assigned receiver) will result in a high pass, and you'll also be able to throw ahead and behind your receivers accordingly. More variety in the types of passes calls for new animations for the receivers as well, and the Madden team has responded accordingly. With high passes, for example, you'll see players go up in the air to grab for balls above their heads, whereas in previous years they always attempted to catch the ball in the breadbasket. Finally, as mentioned earlier, these types of touch passes are executable only when throwing in your QB's cone of vision. Furthermore, the only way to ensure you're getting the maximum out of your QB's accuracy rating is by tossing passes in your comfort zone, further tying together the accuracy and awareness ratings that were once so ephemeral in execution.
The defensive improvements in last year's Madden game were generally well received, especially for gamers who felt the defensive side of the ball was long overdue for a few shots of innovation. Though the jury is still out for the QB vision and placement mechanics, it's clear that the Madden NFL 2006 team is at the very least looking to continually shake things up when it comes to EA Sports' biggest franchise. We'll have much more coverage of Madden NFL 2006 as we approach the game's release later this year.